WASHINGTON, D.C. – Attorney General Karl A. Racine today filed a lawsuit against Washington Hebrew Congregation (WHC), a synagogue that also operates a fee-based childcare center, for routinely ignoring District laws designed to protect children and creating an environment ripe for abuse. In a consumer protection lawsuit, the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) alleges that WHC violated District law by placing children in the care of unqualified, unsupervised staff, operating in violation of its license, and misleading parents about the safety of its programs. In 2018, WHC’s childcare center disclosed allegations that children had been sexually abused by an assistant teacher. OAG is seeking relief for harmed families, a court order to ensure WHC complies with District law moving forward, and civil penalties to deter WHC from engaging in misconduct in the future.
“Washington Hebrew Congregation repeatedly ignored District child safety laws and failed to protect children in its care—and as a result, fifteen children have reported abuse,” said AG Racine. “Our lawsuit against Washington Hebrew seeks restitution for these children and their families. The Office of the Attorney General will not hesitate to hold accountable District childcare providers if they do not follow the law.”
WHC is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation. It owns and operates a child development facility in Ward 3. The childcare center operates under the name Edlavitch-Tyser Early Childhood Center. From 2016 through 2019, Washington Hebrew Congregation was licensed by the District’s Office of the State Superintendent for Education (OSSE) to operate a childcare center during a limited period of the calendar year, where approximately 40 staff members provided care to up to 130 children between the ages of two and five years old.
In August 2018, parents with children at WHC received an email disclosing that there had been allegations of sexual abuse at the childcare center. In the months that followed, parents learned that WHC disregarded its legal obligations to protect the health, safety, and positive development of children under its care. By failing to comply with District laws and regulations governing childcare centers, WHC created an environment ripe for abuse. To date, fifteen children have made allegations of sexual abuse against an unqualified, unsupervised assistant teacher, who was employed at the center from approximately March 2016 to August 2018.
The District’s Consumer Protection Procedures Act (CPPA) prohibits a wide variety of deceptive and unlawful business practices. Under the CPPA, it is illegal to make misrepresentations about products or services, or to provide products or services that violate other District laws. OAG alleges that WHC violated the CPPA by:
- Routinely ignoring laws designed to protect children from abuse: WHC’s leadership ignored the law requiring childcare centers to have at least two staff members always present with children. This “two-deep” requirement is considered an industry standard of care and is critical to protect against the risk of child abuse by teachers or staff members. Instead of following this rule, WHC frequently allowed single staff members to take children—either individually or in small groups—to isolated locations, including the bathroom, an empty classroom, and the woods, often for extended periods of time without oversight or question.
- Placing children in the care of unqualified staff members: WHC repeatedly hired assistant teachers who failed to meet the District’s minimum requirements for experience and education for childcare providers and failed to obtain background checks for staff members. Under District law, assistant teachers must hold at least an associate degree or a high school diploma along with a training certification and competence in the field of early childhood education. Childcare centers are also required to obtain background checks for all staff. WHC hired college students who did not meet the minimum required credit hours in early childhood education to work as assistant teachers, and individuals who held only high school degrees and lacked certification, training, or experience in early childhood education. On multiple occasions, OSSE gave warnings to WHC for not conducting required background checks.
- Failing to adequately report suspected child abuse: District law requires childcare centers to “[c]reate an encouraging and supportive environment” where staff can report incidents of alleged or actual child abuse, neglect, or concerns about risks to a child’s health and safety without fear of retaliation or termination of their employment. However, WHC’s leadership dismissed dozens of concerns and complaints from teachers about the conduct of an assistant teacher—who was later alleged to have abused multiple children. One teacher spoke to the head of the childcare center more than twenty times about her concerns. Instead of documenting the complaints or taking corrective action, the head of the center stated that any staff member who complained about this assistant teacher would be reprimanded or fired. WHC also failed to report extreme and concerning behavioral changes exhibited by a child—possibly indicative of abuse—to appropriate authorities for more than six months.
- Misrepresenting the safety of its childcare center to parents: WHC made numerous misrepresentations to parents about the safety of the childcare services it provided. Among other things, it led parents to believe that it followed District laws and licensing requirements intended to keep children safe when that was not the case. It also advertised to parents that its staff met or exceeded the District’s minimum legal requirements, falsely claiming on its website that “[a]ssistant teachers also exceed basic requirements. All of our assistant teachers are degreed or have several years of early childhood education training and/or experience working in an early childhood setting.”
- Operating unlicensed summer programs: WHC’s license allowed it to operate a childcare facility during the school year months only. However, between 2016 and 2018, it operated an unlicensed summer camp that provided care to an estimated 250 children over three summers.
OAG also alleges that by violating District laws and regulations in these ways, WHC also violated the District’s Nonprofit Corporations Act by abusing the authority conferred on it.
A copy of the complaint is available at: https://oag.dc.gov/sites/default/files/2020-10/WHC-Complaint.pdf
With this lawsuit, OAG is seeking relief for harmed families, and civil penalties and legal costs to deter WHC from violating District law.
How to Report Illegal or Unfair Business Practices
Consumers who have been the victims of unfair or deceptive business practices can file a complaint with OAG by calling (202) 442-9828, emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, or filling out a consumer complaint form online.